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Reclaiming your virtual self

How can we use the web, social media and our smartphones in a way that’s aligned with our faith? By Guy Brandon

Selfie 
 

It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that life has changed over the last 20 or so years. Anyone who was born before the early 1990s will remember how unconnected life was before the rise of the internet. We had phones, faxes, TV and radio, but the content these offered and the communication they enabled could hardly compare to the ‘always-on’ culture we now experience through the web, social media and handheld devices. It’s possible to access almost any information we want and connect with family, friends and colleagues instantly.
 
History of Technology professor Melvin Kranzberg memorably said that ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.’ Specific instances of new technologies – a smartphone rather than a desktop computer; Twitter instead of Facebook – always embody a set of values and encourage us to act in a certain way. Technology is always, unfailingly about power. It allows us to do things we couldn’t do without it – but there’s a question of how that power is taken up, and by whom.
 
One of the key things about communications technology is that it is all-pervasive. There’s a Chinese proverb: ‘If you want a definition of water, don’t ask a fish.’ It’s hard to grasp how much something affects you when it’s a part of every waking hour and every aspect of your life. To learn more about how my use of communications technology was impacting me, I decided to be the fish out of water and turn my smartphone off for a week.
 
I’d already been aware of how disruptive phone alerts (anything from SMS to social media updates and IMs) can be. There’s something reflexive about the way we reach for a buzzing phone before our minds can catch up with us, regardless of whether we’re already in another conversation or activity. If the statistics are to be believed, the average smartphone owner checks their device around 150 times a day, or every six minutes. The range of alerts we receive might account for a significant proportion of that, but what about the rest?
 
I use my smartphone a lot for work, as well as for emails, social networking and general web browsing. But the real lesson of my unplugged week was not how much I use my smartphone but when. A week without it suggests that I’m most tempted to check my phone when the situation I’m in doesn’t offer the stimulation or outcome I want. Just looking around suggests I’m not alone: a spare few seconds alone in a café, at a bus stop, in an ad break, even in church, and that’s what people turn to. The smartphone has become our default and automatic cultural solution for boredom, frustration, loneliness, dissatisfaction.
 
The always-on culture means that life online always offers something new. Content in our social media feeds is tailored uniquely to us, based on our profile and previous habits. Large networks of ‘friends’ means there’s rarely a gap in the stream of new posts. It’s a consumer’s paradise, a world shaped around us, constantly delivering choice and change. No wonder real life occasionally struggles to compete.
 

Digitally remastered

One of the major challenges, then, when figuring out how we can use the web, social media and our smartphones in a way that’s aligned with our faith, is to make sure we’re engaging with them consciously and deliberately. It’s too easy to go with the flow and let them set the pace for us – which means that we’re passively consuming not just updates and other content, but the spiritual and ethical values embodied by those platforms too. In order to keep the good and leave the bad behind, we need to break our Pavlovian conditioning around smartphones and make sure we are using with them on our terms – or rather, on God’s terms – instead of doing so uncritically.
 
There are many ways we can start to do this, but here are just a few suggestions to be going on with:

  • For the majority of smartphone owners, checking their device is one of the first things they do in the morning. Draw a line in the sand: is there a better way to start the day?

  • Think about keeping some times of day mobile-free – like mealtimes, or late in the evening.

  • Consider silencing certain kinds of alert (emails rarely need to be answered instantly, for example, and you will probably pick them up soon enough anyway) to avoid constantly being distracted from other activities.

  • Focus on one thing at a time. There’s good evidence that so-called multi-tasking is just the attention flitting from one activity to another, and sensitises the mind to distraction – undermining your ability to concentrate. That has implications for your offline relationships as well as your prayer life and faith.

  • Turn your phone off for an hour, or a day, or a week, just to remember what it’s like to live without it. How is life different? 

 
 

Picture: Tom Sodoge/Unsplash


Guy Brandon is the senior researcher for the Jubilee Centre, a Cambridge-based Christian social reform organisation. He is the author of Digitally Remastered: a biblical guide to reclaiming your virtual self, a book that challenges us to think through the relational and spiritual implications of our digital world.
 
Digitally Remastered is available from Christian bookshops and www.muddypearl.com, priced £9.99.

 
 

Baptist Times, 03/01/2017
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